When it comes to civil rights, can it be that black Americans are fighting a war we've already won?
That's not the same as wondering whether racism no longer exists or whether social and economic equality have been achieved. The answers to those questions are sadly obvious.
No, what I'm wondering is whether we have achieved about what there is to be achieved from a civil rights perspective, in which case it might be time to turn our attention to other, more productive fronts.
I'm old enough to remember when, in my native Mississippi, it took the assistance of federal registrars to get my parents registered to vote. I remember being turned away from Riverside Amusement Park, the Hawthorne Room restaurant and even the Pole, a drive-in eatery -- all in up-north Indiana.
Public schools, public transport and places of public accommodation such as parks, hotels and movie houses have been desegregated for so long that people in their thirties have no active memory of Jim Crow. They don't know the denial of civil rights.
What they do know are the names of some of the heroes who fought against American apartheid, and they know that they still run into racist attitudes that seem much like the attitudes that give bitter meaning to place names such as Selma and Little Rock and Greensboro. To a large degree, it is that combination of remembering civil rights heroes and experiencing racist attitudes that keeps us thinking that the civil rights struggle has yet to be consummated.
What may be closer to the truth is that the civil rights phase of our struggle for justice is over -- successfully so -- and that it's time to turn our attention to a second phase that is already under way.
To grasp the end of the first phase, just think of two present areas of contention: college admissions and affirmative action. Can anyone believe that the main problem with college admissions is that university officials are barring qualified applicants because they are black or brown? Isn't the argument over what to do about those bright young minorities who could be expected to do reasonably well in college, although they fall shy of some white applicants in the admissions criteria?
There are good arguments for stretching the admissions criteria to include such immeasurables as hardships overcome, but they are different arguments from those that led to the dismantling of official segregation.
As for affirmative action, which is being assailed with an enthusiasm some of us find frightening, what is the weapon of its attackers? It is a phrase declaring (in the words of that infamous California proposition) that the government "shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin." That's our language -- language whose adoption we worked for because we thought we'd be better off if we could get the American majority to begin judging us by the "content of our character" and similar nonracial criteria.
I think we are better off for it, even though we know that we are still, too often, judged by our race. But the other part of our present-day reality is that colorblindness has not been enough to bring us to equality -- not even to fundamental fairness.
Why? For a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's enough simply to change the rules. Once major league baseball went colorblind, it stopped being necessary to handpick the Jackie Robinsons and to limit their numbers. The pool was there, available and exceptionally well-qualified. All it took was to open the door. But despite our fondness for sports analogies, not everything works that way. Open the door to college or nontraditional jobs, and inherited disadvantage can make it harder to walk through.
The effect may look and feel a lot like the effect of active discrimination -- and because it does, the temptation is to treat it the way we treated color-based denial of opportunity. But it is different, and it requires different remedies. The sooner we get the difference clearly in our heads, the sooner those new remedies can be put in place.